oubliette

Leonard, the main character in Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, can’t form new memories. For a few minutes, he’s right there with you. Then his brain hits the reset button and everything just floats away. It’s a real condition: anterograde amnesia. (Stories about people with this existentially disturbing condition here and here.) 

I’ve got a pretty good working memory. In high school, I’d cram for tests right before walking into class, quickly skimming the chapter and gobbling up all the names, places, and dates. As long as I stayed engaged, I could keep juggling those loose puzzle pieces until I’d slotted each one into its proper place in the exam. But after handing it in, I’d have to mentally relax. Whoosh! “Au revoir, history of the French Revolution!”

As far as our writing is concerned, we’re all like Leonard. If you have an idea in the shower, that’s your one shot: write it down. Otherwise, you’re going to end up toweling your hair with the nagging sensation that you’ve forgotten something. That is officially the worst feeling—even worse than being trapped inside for a global pandemic of unknown duration! To quote one of my favorite subreddits, “Thanks, I hate it.”

If I’m on a roll drafting a particular chapter, I have to see it through right then. If a solution has popped into my head on how to untangle a thorny section during revision, making a note won’t suffice. I need to work it out, get it done, resolve it. 

Good ideas feel so vibrant and alive and obvious when you’re having them, it seems absurd that you could ever not think whatever it is you’re thinking at that moment. The sky is blue, one plus one is two, and this anecdote clearly needs to be retold in the present tense. Lo and behold, when you sit down with the same piece of text the following day, you find you have no idea what you’re even looking at, let alone which tense you’d wanted to use. The threads have unraveled. What you’re reading might as well have been written by someone else. When I discover myself back to square one this way, rarely does that previous revelation ever return no matter how long I wait.

Oh, and now that I work on many projects simultaneously, this plus a million.

To survive, Leonard relies on a rigorous system of note-taking. He leaves Post-it notes everywhere to remind himself of what he needs to do next. He gets the most important reminders tattooed. I’m sticking with one tattoo, but otherwise I’m on board with Leonard. I leave myself crystal-clear instructions for how to proceed on every creative project the moment I decide to set the work aside. I’ve got to move fast, too—I can actually feel my brain preparing to flush its working memory cache. Whoosh! “Au revoir, everything I’d planned to do with this book proposal’s unfinished outline!”

The more breadcrumbs and clues, the better. Assume you’ll remember nothing. Nothing! I’ve made the most progress as a professional writer simply by accepting that tomorrow’s Dave will be this random dude who stumbled onto my laptop and happened to guess my password. It’s a bit like when employees of large corporations are fired and then forced to train their replacements. I have to leave instructions for the next guy or he’s going to have no clue what to do next.

When it comes to crafting these reminders, set the bar low. However blank and confused you think you’ll be in 24 hours, let alone a week or a month from now, you’ll be even blanker. Make the effort to spell things out to someone totally unfamiliar with your work, i.e you. Trust me: when you do return to it, you will feel a special gratitude to your former self for that foresight. It’s never too much detail. The more friction you remove for future self, the more likely you’ll be to pick up where you left off without losing much steam, let alone all of it. I always tell myself exactly what to do, step by step, along with any necessary files and links. Whatever it takes to make it easy to slip back into the flow.

I recently stumbled on Conventional Comments. The idea here is to establish a universal set of conventions for commenting on someone else’s work. Again, everything you review is someone else’s work, even if that someone is yesterday’s you. The suggestions are smart: for example, always prepend a label like “question” or “nitpick” to help quickly identify the nature of the comment. Having written, read, and acted on thousands and thousands of comments in my career as a writer and editor, I can imagine how much time and effort a simple system like this might have saved me. Of course, the trouble with any system of conventions is getting other people to use it. But at the very least I can make things easier for myself and my clients.

That’s all for this week. I’m keeping up with my professional workload but, as you’ve seen, I’m a bit stuck on personal projects like the Maven Game. (More like totally frozen and dead inside.) Julian Simpson offers sage advice for writers on how to cope with all that.p.s. Since the pandemic started, many have asked me: Are publishers still buying? Are agents still shopping proposals? Are books still selling? Guys, read the Hot Sheet.